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Traversing grief on the Camino

  • 03 May 2012

The Way (PG). Director: Emilio Estevez. Starring: Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningen, James Nesbitt, Emilio Estevez. 121 minutes

It's one of the world's most famous long walks. The Way of St James, the pilgrimage route that extends hundreds of kilometres to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain, has been trekked for millennia by religious pilgrims or tourists in search of a scenic adventure.

The Way is actor turned filmmaker Emilio Estevez's empathetic consideration of the Camino and those who walk it in the modern era.

At its heart is a poignant account of bereaved father Tom (portrayed by Estevez's real-life father, Sheen) who makes the trek in honour of his adult son Daniel (Estevez), who died in the early stages of his own pilgrimage during a freak storm. Tom carries Daniel's ashes with him and scatters them along the way.

He shares the journey, reluctantly at first, with an eclectic group, including Joost (Wageningen), a Dutchman of generous girth and generous nature; snide American Sarah (Unger), whose abrasive personality masks numerous hurts; and Jack (Nesbitt), an Irish writer attempting to write a book about the Camino.

All have ostensibly mundane motives for attempting the trek (Joost to lose weight; Sarah to quit smoking) but as the film progresses it becomes clear that each is hopeful, to varying degrees, that the Camino will provide them with something beyond their immediate, material desire.

The Way is a sincere film, if somewhat sentimental. Luscious cinematography is employed to soak up the rustic greens and browns and stone-greys of the stunning locations. Combine these with a string of montages set to contemporary music that look like cheesy outtakes from a credit card commercial, and at times The Way feels decidedly like a tourism video.

Meanwhile the pairing of Sheen and Estevez as on-screen father and son, in a film Estevez wrote and directed, lends a sense of navel gazing and family love-in that taints the film's better achievements. (Indeed the film was inspired by Sheen's own experience walking the Camino with his grandson, Estevez's son, Taylor, in 2003.)

But it is a thoughtful film. In road movies the geography (which here is sometimes harsh, sometimes beautiful, always inspiring) can usually be read as a metaphor for the internal journey the characters are on. This may reflect the nature of religious pilgrimages too, where pilgrims may seek to wring meaning from each moment. If meaning proves elusive